HIIT It Or Quit It: Truth or Misconception?

What if I told you that you could cut your workout time in half and perhaps achieve better results? The only caveat is that you must exert yourself to your maximum, until you’re breathless. Don’t worry; you do get some recovery periods thrown into the mix. And research shows that three days a week is all you need. Not as low key and relaxing, but definitely more efficient and ideal for hectic schedules. However, this in no way suggests that you should do away with your at least weekly yoga class. A little variety never hurt anyone; if anything, it’s encouraged.

HIIT or high-intensity interval training has been at the forefront of the fitness world—not only because it’s brief, but also because just a twenty-minute session is as beneficial if not more so than 60 minutes on the elliptical or a moderately paced run. Sounds too good to be true, especially for the majority of us constantly on the go who struggle to consistently make time for a sweat sesh. The key to HIIT is short bursts of energy to reach eighty percent of your maximum heart rate instead of low-intensity, endurance-focused physical activity. Emerging evidence suggests that upping the intensity of your workout for a brief period of time can just as effectively reduce body fat and promote fatty acid oxidation in skeletal muscle as your traditional 60-minute cardio workout. HIIT seems to be the main strategy in controlling weight gain and promoting cardiometabolic health these days mainly because of its time-efficient advantage over steady state training.

High-intensity interval training has also been widely publicized for its superior fat-burning effects, a process that is claimed to continue as much as a full day post-exercise. In reality, the evidence to support excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) or an elevated metabolism in HIIT as compared to lower intensity exercise is largely inconclusive. Exercise intensity and duration both have an effect on EPOC. Even more, the role of energy expenditure during the exercise bout was found to have a much greater influence on weight loss as opposed to calories burned after your workout (only 6-15% of total energy expenditure!).

Nonetheless, as you know, enjoyment is a critical part of any exercise regimen. Well, maybe toleration is a better word to use in this context. This is the only way to ensure adherence and a healthy lifestyle. So, the take-home message is that despite what you may have heard, interval training is not flat-out “better” than traditional steady state cardio. It’s just another form of exercise that may be a more suitable option for those of us always in a time crunch. I get it—sometimes you want to go on a leisurely run on a nice day or spin at your own pace on the stationary bike for a good 45 minutes, enough time to feel the burn and work up a sweat. Engage in whatever activity that excites you. One day you may decide that you’re more into a hot yoga class than Tabata training or mounting StairMaster. Like I said in the beginning, don’t be afraid to mix it up—just get your body moving.

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Elizabeth Arruda

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.